Feds, province investing $9.4M in Woodland Cultural Centre's Save the Evidence campaign

The federal and provincial governments are investing more than $9.4 million for improvements and preservation at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford.

The centre is the site of the former Mohawk Institute residential school.

Officials announced the funding on Monday to support phase three of the centre's Save the Evidence project, a campaign to preserve and restore the site.

"With this funding we are that much closer to realizing our dream of opening up the former Mohawk Institute Residential School as an important interpretive heritage site to educate Canada and to uncover the truth," Janis Monture, the Woodland Cultural Centre's executive director, said in a release.

More than $7.6 million is coming from the government of Canada and another $1.8 million from the Ontario government.

The Woodland Cultural Centre is contributing $378,437.

"Across the country, Indigenous communities and Canadians are mourning as more unmarked graves are located at the sites of former Residential Schools," Catherine McKenna, federal minister of infrastructure and communities, said in a release. "Today’s announcement for the third phase of the Save the Evidence project at the Woodland Cultural Centre, will help rehabilitate the Mohawk Institute Residential School site in Six Nations of the Grand River, and allow for healing and the preservation of a past that should not be forgotten."

The funds will contribute toward restoring the building's masonry, restoring and replacing more than 100 windows, upgrading the HVAC system and finishing interior restorations such as door frames, flooring, baseboards and fireplaces.

Accessibility upgrades are also being undertaken, including a barrier-free main entrance, elevator and accessible pathways around the building.

"The overwhelming response was to save this building and it was driven by our survivors," said Six Nations of the Grand River Chief Mark Hill. "It’s amazing and they’ve had an amazing team that’s worked tirelessly on their fundraising efforts and to see the government is taking some action and true action to reconciliation and what that means in this country. I think this is a step towards that and it’s really going to be a tool where we can educate the world on the history here.”

According to a release, the work will allow the Woodland Cultural Centre to restore the Mohawk Institute residential school site and allow it to open as a national historic and cultural site for public education and healing.

"It's best to have their stories recorded and they will be there for people to watch and have first-hand knowledge from the survivors," said residential school survivor Dawn Hill. "Some of them are pretty graphic and pretty horrible and I think that's the most important part. They have to remember that these were kids."

"Our government stands shoulder to shoulder with Indigenous partners as we support community-directed work to identify and commemorate Indigenous Residential School sites across the province," Greg Rickford, Ontario's minister of Indigenous affairs, said in a release. "Today’s investment in the Woodland Cultural Centre is critical to the important work being done by Six Nations of the Grand River to build a national resource to support public education and centre for healing for the community."

In recent weeks, Chief Hill said plans for a ground search of the former Mohawk Institute are in the works.

"Right now, we are in the process of finalizing all of our plans," he said Monday. "It is survivor and community led so we are really taking our direction and guidance from survivors. We will be having more information in the coming days."

Hill said the National Truth and Reconciliation Centre has recorded 52 deaths at the former Mohawk Institute.

"The thing is we don’t know where they are buried," he said. "And that’s the big question, If they are recorded at the National Truth and Reconciliation Centre and yet we don’t have record of the 52 … There should be marked graves already of 52 but we don’t know where that is. So that’s a problem."

"I think there's probably more, because there was no accountability here," said residential school survivor Roberta Hill.

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line at 1-800-721-0066.

A list of Indigenous mental health resources can be accessed here.